Hollywood legend Rita Moreno gets the documentary she deserves [SUNDANCE STUDIO]

Few if any stars can boast the kind of resume held by the legendary Rita Moreno. In 1962, after her breakthrough performance in “West Side Story,” Moreno became the first Hispanic actress to win an Oscar. She followed that honor with a Grammy Award, two Emmy Awards, a Tony Award, and even a Peabody Award. She’s the first Latino actor to earn the coveted EGOT, and thanks to that 2019 honor from the Peabody Awards organization, only the third person to ever win all five of those prestigious awards after Barbra Streisand and Mike Nichols.

But after a career of so many firsts — as well as a history of activism that found Moreno at the front of the civil rights movement as well as the fight for abortion rights — how does Moreno herself view her legacy?

“I’m not a person who thinks of legacy. It’s like people say something you’ve become the representative. The truth is, you don’t start out wanting to become a legacy,” she tells Gold Derby. “That isn’t the goal. You’re not starting out to be a representative of anything. You just want to be an actress, and you want to be in the movies. I just wanted to be in the movies. All of these added things are kind of a mystery to me because I don’t see myself that way. Let’s just say that.”

Directed by Mariem Pérez Riera and produced by Brent Miller and Ilia Vélez-Dávila, Moreno’s life and impact are explored in great detail in the new film “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It.” Featuring a candid interview with the 89-year-old as its centerpiece, the documentary — which debuts at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — tracks Moreno’s life from her upbringing in Puerto Rico to her early days in Hollywood, where she faced sexual abuse and mistreatment from powerful executives.

“I do feel, and this is accidental almost, that this film has come along at the most proficuous time,” Moreno says. “It’s a film of its time in the most interesting way. It’s not something we were really planning — saying, wow, now we’ve got the #MeToo movement and all that. I’m thrilled it’s coming out at this time. I’m sorry we can’t be there in person at Sundance. I feel like I’m being deprived of the most wonderful experiences, all of us all. But other than that, I think this film is a film whose time has absolutely come. Because I’m from another time, from another era, and things haven’t changed that much. It’s shocking.”

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As shown in the film, Moreno was fighting for equal rights and representation from her early days in Hollywood — something that put her in stark contrast to the rest of the industry. But her outspokenness in the face of broad injustice helped spark an entire generation of stars, many of whom appear in the film — including Eva Longoria and Gloria Estefan.

“It’s very current in terms of Rita did that a long time ago but it’s still needed,” Vélez-Dávila says. “Because we haven’t progressed that much, unfortunately. The importance of it is that it’s very pertinent and very current at this moment. She definitely did it in a very brave way at a moment when she didn’t have anyone to look up to. Now people have been doing it more, but we still have a long way to go.”

The film was shot in 2018 and 2019 when Moreno was co-starring on “One Day at a Time,” the critically acclaimed series that started on Netflix before moving to Pop TV. Moreno was praised for her role on the show and even received a Gold Derby TV Award nomination in the best supporting actress category in 2017. This year, she’ll appear in Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story,” bringing her career nearly full circle. 

“She has this curiosity that she’s never lost,” Miller says. “That’s part of her longevity and her relevance. She’s very well informed, very smart and she cares. All of these things we tried to capture in the film.”

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